On her way home from a work trip, my friend, a PhD highly regarded in her field, was feeling pleased that she had resisted the temptation to spend $150 on a jacket. Then her new husband, who also had a successful career, called her with news: “Guess what? I just bought a new motorboat!” His exuberance was met with silence on the other end of the line. After the pause she responded, “I am on my way home now. You have 30 minutes to think about what you’ve just done.”
Let’s just say — he returned the boat. Following what I assume was a rather pointed discussion about money, my friends have been happily married for nearly 20 years. Perhaps they did not talk about money before they were married. For many of us — even those who tend to be analytical in their jobs — financial responsibility isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when we look for a potential spouse. Often, there is initial physical attraction, followed over time by friendship and deeper affection. As the relationship grows, we might try to find out whether our political beliefs and views about faith are compatible, or whether we enjoy the same movies or laugh at the same jokes. We often want to be sure that special someone gets along with our family. But one topic that does not come up often enough is money.
Marriage is a lot of things. At its simplest, it is a contract, a pledge, a promise of commitment between two people. Christians recognize marriage as a spiritual covenant two people make in the sight of God. Long ago, the prophet Malachi wrote this about the marriage covenant:
God was there as a witness when you spoke your marriage vows to your young bride, and now you’ve broken those vows, broken the faith-bond with your vowed companion, your covenant wife. God, not you, made marriage. His spirit inhabits even the smallest details of marriage. And what does he want from marriage? Children of God, that’s what. So guard the spirit of marriage within you. Don’t cheat on your spouse.
— Malachi 2:14-15, The Message
We often interpret the prophet’s words as a warning against having extra-marital affairs. But the passage can actually refer to betrayal of any kind. People can cheat in ways we don’t consider.
One way we can betray our promise is to be unfaithful with our finances. Professionals and academics are not immune to poor financial management. Addictions — to gambling or anything else — can secretly eat away at a couple’s finances. Perhaps more subtly, some of us are tempted to buy things online or at the mall that we don’t need. Some people get a burst of dopamine in their brains when they shop — giving them an intense feeling of pleasure and satisfaction. Maybe we use credit cards to live beyond our means and accumulate a large amount of debt over time. Living beyond our means can be especially tempting for grad students on a tight budget, particularly when we see our peers in the work force already earning a lot of money.
Sometimes we don’t know how to begin to address money in our lives. Here are three suggestions:
First, if marriage is a possibility in your relationship, take some time to have an honest conversation about how you approach money. Even if you're already married, it is worth addressing money, especially if it is causing a lot of stress in your relationship. Do you have a plan for paying off college and grad school debt? Are you okay with renting, or do you dream of buying a home? How do you compare the freedom to pursue different jobs with the security that comes from sticking with a single company or institution for much of your career? Talk about your views regarding charitable giving — will you give to philanthropic organizations, to a local congregation, to help struggling friends, neighbors, or family members? Where are you willing to be flexible? Which priorities are non-negotiable? Talk it over.
Second, find resources. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. There are a number of good blogs, podcasts, books, and workshops about money. You might check out articles at Ron Blue or budgeting software, like You Need A Budget. These and other resources can help you make and keep a budget.
Third, accept that relationships can, and often do, get a little messy. We’re not always going to get things right when it comes to our finances. We may end up miscommunicating or impulse-buying an item that we ultimately don’t need. We should work towards financial health, but we must also give and receive grace when we fall short.
An honest conversation about money is an important step towards a strong foundation for marriage. You want to approach money as members of the same team, not as adversaries. Planning together about money is a wise investment that can lead to shared understanding about finances and build trust in your spouse’s faithfulness. Maybe you will avoid buying — and then returning — a boat.